“Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny” is a famous (although somewhat flawed) framework from old-school biology that actually offers a useful perspective and framework on how to successfully implement any organizational or personal improvement process. As Statistician George Box stated,

All Models are Wrong. Some Models are Useful.

This is quite useful from my standpoint. And I will get to how it relates to successful implementation of improvement strategies in a moment, after this lesson in the history of biology…

The concept of the title asserts that the embryonic developmental stages of a living organism (ontogeny) mimic and demonstrate the evolutionary history (phylogeny) of that organism’s ancestors. (Recapitulates meaning “repeats” in this instance.)

John Moore, an eminent historian of science, attributes the statement to Ernst Haeckel, in his book Generelle Morphologie, published in 1866. To a certain extent, the idea seems true prima facie. (see the corollary, below)

For instance, the embryos of all vertebrate animals include gill slits (or gill bars, at least) in their necks at a certain stage of development. This, of course, reminds us that their ancestors were fish and only fish actually use these slits in the adult condition; other animals modify them for other uses. (In humans, for instance, the gill bars become bones of the inner ear.)

Back in the 19th century post-Darwin, it was believed that nearly all of the sequence of embryonic developmental anatomies were a true recapitulation of evolutionary stages of overall species development.

We now know that it just doesn’t hold true that faithfully, even though most species do share a lot of chromosomes. Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth in the idea; certainly evolution rarely makes a totally new structure without modification from some previous structure.

Well, So What? — (You may be asking!)

Well, consider the developmental stages of your new project and its requirement for initial success as well as long-term implementation. Most programs fail — we know this from lots of statistics as well as experiences. My restatement of the principle for organizational development would simply state that:

The successful development of any NEW program of performance improvement or change is most likely to recapitulate the successful development of your organization’s PAST successful programs.

If you are implementing a NEW program, it would make very good sense to study and understand the factors that made the older (and successful) programs work instead of trying to invent or implement a totally new way of doing things. People and organizations are more comfortable with the old established parallel styles and practices and are more likely to reject the new untested ideas, schemes and frameworks. (Think old, comfortable slippers…)

comfortable old shoes of Scott Simmerman

At the same time, a study of the unsuccessful programs and failures can be educational in that it can identify factors that lead to the death of the initiatives (and occasionally the torture of the participants!).


Would you like to hop and pop in a pair of shoes such as this? Well, your new program might look like this to many of the people who have worn those same shoes in the past and got blisters and worse from the experience. Making your “new” improvement program look and feel like the “old successful” ones will be of great benefit.

I hope this helps — step back from the wagon before running forward and spend a little time discussing the frameworks and key parts of some of the past successes. The past impacts the future, for sure, and we can certainly learn from those experiences. This concept has repeatedly helped me when the goal was assisting some organizational transformation. By identifying the critical success and failure factors, one is almost guaranteed a more successful implementation.

Remember that the most common stages of a Project are generally:

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic about Progress
  4. Search for the Guilty with a Blame Frame
  5. Punishment of the Innocent
  6. Praise and Honor for all Non-Participants

(Please note that the above 6 phases are a joke….maybe!)

 And then there are the Six Phases of a 2nd Project:

  1. Mild enthusiasm combined with unexpressed general concern
  2. Search for volunteers
  3. Avoidance of involvement
  4. Search for anything positive

Please note the following:
Discussion of 3rd project tabled for later discussion. Much later… 

In reality, the General Success Factors involved in the successful implementation of programs often include, but certainly aren’t limited to:

  • Top management involvement (direct and visible)
  • Development of trust among all participants
  • Active engagement and involvement of participants building to a sense of ownership involvement
  • Linking to previous successes of the organization, the department and the individuals
  • Perceived low risk of implementation (actual and perceived)
  • Low cost / exposure of a trial implementation
  • Understanding of need for continuous continuous improvement
  • Focuses on a critical factor necessary for the organization’s success
  • Lots of involvement of personnel, cross-departmental
  • Hoopla, catchy name, fun, visibility, etc.

 (Nah, no cute little words spelling out anything… I was just kidding on that last one. If the program is to be a serious effort at performance improvement, it should have a serious name!)

* A corollary to the idea is that all vertebrate embryos are very similar in their earliest stages, and that they then diverge to individual shapes in later stages. That also is nearly true. But recently there has been an attack on the original proposer of the idea, that same Haeckel. He made now-famous comparative drawings of fish, amphibians, birds, mammals at comparable embryo ages, depicting the remarkable similarity they seemed to show in earlier stages. If you open a biology text, there is a good chance of seeing these drawings. It is now believed that Haeckel deliberately mis-drew these, to emphasize the similarity and downplay the differences that are truly present. The whole idea isn’t baloney, but Haeckel apparently went beyond normal science to make his point more acceptable. (For more on this, see Science, Vol. 277, page 1435, for Sept. 5, 1997).

(Thanks to John Snyder for his input on the scientific basis and history of this model. John is a retired Professor of Biology at Furman University. I have taken liberally from John’s ideas. This last paragraph is from John’s note to me about the biological information.)

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

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